Reckoning These Ruins: White Silence, White Structure, and Regard for Black Lives

chris-new-southerner2KAIROS AND CRISIS

Contributing Editor


Thomas Merton defined kairos as “the time of urgent and providential decision,” a time that involves the risk of crisis. This sense of kairos, particularly here in the South, has much if not everything to do with race and religion. These things are bound to our identities as Southerners, whether accurately or stereotypically. They have been wellsprings of goodness and grace, and they have suffered as objects of hatred and ignorance. Always they have required response. Kairos and Crisis hopes to be one such response, seeking nothing less than healing for our places, our neighbors and ourselves.

In the May 1961 entry to “On Pilgrimage,” her column published by The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day writes: “So many things are happening in the world and we are brought so close to them by newsprint and radio and television that one feels crushed, submerged by events.”

Though I would like to be, and though I try to participate in and speak for just causes as I can, I am no activist in the sense that Day was. I am simply a stay-at-home father and part-time college instructor trying to make a way for my family and for myself. Yet I often feel crushed and submerged by the world’s events, too, and that has been especially true of late. Thus I have fallen silent.

Perhaps the breakdown occurred between the time Trayvon Martin was killed and his killer acquitted. I spent days and weeks the summer of 2013 following the outcome of the case, reading every article I could, watching every interview I could, and also grieving—even internally raging—over the apparent joy with which many people, the vast majority of them white “Christian” men, welcomed not only the verdict but the death of this young man.

The night the verdict came in, I wept for him again. I wept not so much because George Zimmerman had escaped justice—though he had—but because, in the absence of such justice, a young man’s death had been justified by the rulers and authorities, the principalities and powers not of some evil, unseen realm, but of this world, this country. I knew, too, that if I had been that young man, or if my son had been that young man, or if any white person had been that young man, the outcome would have been different: He either would not be dead, which seems most likely, or his death would not have been accepted in the eyes of the law. And there would not have been an abundance of white people rejoicing as they danced on his grave.

Shortly after reading and trying to stomach the news that July night, my toddler son, whether awakened by a bad dream or something else, walked into the living room where I was sitting and asked me to lie down with him, which I did until he fell back to sleep.

In the May 1961 column for “On Pilgrimage,” after cataloging some of the world’s events that had been crushing her—the Bay of Pigs crisis, the trial of Adolf Eichmann—Day goes on to quote Martin Luther: “If I knew the world were coming to an end tomorrow, I would still go out and plant my three apple trees today.” She connects this outlook to the invaluable service of the Catholic Worker Movement—caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, offering clothing and shelter to those in need, going to jail when necessary—as well as to facing the joys, difficulties, and necessities of daily life. When I laid down with my son that July night two years ago, that, perhaps, was my way of tending to a seed despite broadcasts of brokenness and all manner of events that pointed to an end—not the sort of end to which fundamentalist preachers constantly point, but the end that bears upon and crushes us now, a nihilistic end in which we care for no one and nothing outside of ourselves.

* * *

I am still tending to such seeds. As I write this now, it is an early morning of July 2015. My son is sitting in the living room eating a toaster waffle and reading Curious George. My daughter is still in bed but beginning to stir; she woke about an hour ago, asked me for some water and then to cover her up with her blanket, and went back to sleep. Soon, once she’s up and ready, we’ll all go on a stroller run. Out the window, the bluebirds that have nested in the box by the fence are beginning their daily work of finding food for their young, two chicks that will be fledging any day now. The Cherokee Purple tomatoes I planted with my children back in the spring are ripening on the vine.

It has been over two years since my last entry to this blog—a blog by which I had hoped to regularly address and reflect on matters of race, religion, and social justice in the South. In these two years of my silence, names have passed like pages in a modern book of Lamentations: Rekia Boyd. Jordan Davis. Renisha McBride. Dontre Hamilton. Eric Garner. John Crawford. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Anthony Hill. Eric Harris. Natasha McKenna. Tanisha Anderson. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Cynthia Hurd. Susie Jackson. Ethel Lance. Depayne Middleton-Doctor. Tywanza Sanders. Daniel Simmons. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. Myra Thompson. Clementa Pinckney. So many others, known and unknown. So many other pages. So much more sorrow like this sorrow.

And now we are faced with news of the death of Sandra Bland and the murder of Samuel Dubose. In response to these losses—which are not isolated “tragedies” but the fallouts of a structure that has no regard for black lives—I have nothing to write that has not already been written by people whose insight well surpasses my own, whose lived experience expands well beyond my own. I agree with Roxane Gay, for instance, who writes that even if Sandra Bland did commit suicide—an official narrative to which neither Gay nor I necessarily subscribe—“there is an entire system of injustice whose fingerprints left bruises on her throat.” And I agree with Shannon M. Houston who, writing on the deaths of both Ms. Bland and Mr. Dubose, states that “it’s clear that we as an American society have forgotten (or never knew how) to properly mourn”—and, further, when she states that the choice for black Americans to mourn does not really exist because they are “presented with far too many bodies at once.”

Far too many black lives have been violently disregarded, murderously disregarded, by the white structure. As a white man, I have nothing to add, nothing to write, to make the truth of this any stronger. I can say, however, that I am listening to that truth as so many have expressed it. I can say that I am trying to learn from such listening, to act upon such learning. I can say, as one who has been absorbed by the structure, as one who has been assumed content to be part of the structure, as one who once was content to be part of the structure because I was unaware of it and didn’t need to be aware of it, as one who has benefited from the structure, as one whose silence the structure welcomes and upon whose silence the structure depends, as one who looks like the structure and is expected to carry on the legacy of the structure, as one who could fade into the structure—I can say that this structure is really a ruin.

It is possible to be white and be “crushed, submerged” by such events as these surrounding the deaths of Sandra Bland and Samuel Dubose, the Charleston 9 and Tamir Rice; it is possible to be crushed by the ruin, the amassed pieces of a racist structure that we have too long ignored for what it is. (As Malcolm X notes in his Autobiography, “This pattern, this ‘system’ that the white man created…that system has done the American white man more harm than an invading army would do to him.”) It is possible for sincere white silence in light of such events to be a function of being crushed. But being crushed is not complacency, and must not be mistaken for complacency.

I have nothing to say except, by God, let it end. Let us bring it to an end. Let our voices rise from this ruin, giving lie to the silence that the structure expects from us, the silence that suggests acceptance and peace at being submerged in wreckage, lying by as this corrupt structure takes more and more lives it regards as nothing—a child in a park, nine people gathered in a sanctuary, a woman who knew her rights and asserted her humanity, a man who spoke and acted in peace, just trying to get home.

There is no true peace for anyone here, and I will not be silent.

New Southerner contributing editor Christopher Martin lives his family in the northwest Georgia piedmont, between the Allatoona Range and Kennesaw Mountain. He edits the online journal Flycatcher and is author of three poetry chapbooks, most recently Marcescence and Everything Turns Away. Chris’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, such as American Public Media’s On Being blog, Broad River Review, Buddhist Poetry Review, Shambhala Sun, The Southern Poetry Anthology, Thrush Poetry Journal, and Waccamaw.

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